It’s a week since my friend Rhonda Copelon passed away. I am asked to write a few words to commemorate her in India but find it difficult to talk about her in the past tense. I am still grappling with it. Since it was known for sometime that the end was near, I thought I was prepared for the news and I was… for the first couple of days. With each passing day since, I am having trouble as the news sinks in. That there was no one around with a common history with her when the news came in made it more difficult. Email and skype have their own limitations and virtual hugs can only go this far. As I read through the trajectory of Rhonda’s life, the sense is not only one of profound loss but of overall restlessness, the reasons for which may have to do with the realization of my own shortcomings and lost opportunities with her.
The obituaries describe Rhonda’s significant lifetime achievements and the importance of her work protecting and promoting constitutional rights and gender justice. I am awe-struck and feel privileged to have known her. The privilege began with an opportunity to work together, which evolved to a beautiful friendship. There are a number of things that is uniquely Rhonda that made her who she was and what she did in her lifetime.
To me, the one word that describes Rhonda’s activism, advocacy and commitment to gender justice is: relentless. If Rhonda engaged with an issue, she would keep going at it until the desired result is achieved or until the issue itself gives up i.e. it no longer remains an issue or somehow becomes moot. She did not quite hear or understand a ‘no.’ Indeed, she gave it her own interpretation which was often - ‘not now,’ ‘not in this form,’ ‘not at this forum,’ ‘not with this set of people’ – thus always keeping open the possibility of over time turning a ‘confirmed no’ to a reluctant, skeptical, tired, convinced or an enthusiastic ‘yes.’ I recall delegates at the various United Nations preparatory committee meetings during the advocacy of gender issues in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court seek her out as an authority when they wanted to inform themselves or escape her from afar when what she sought them out for was too ahead of their time.
Rhonda’s brilliant legal mind inspired most of us who worked with her. It was a mind that often read into existing legal texts, judgments and decisions, treaties and conventions, the possibility of justice for women where its plain reading suggested otherwise. Observing her argue domestic violence or rape as torture; or evaluate evidence for violations under the Alien Tort Claims Act has been an invaluable education. It was nothing short of a performance by a magician - a powerful exercise of looking at an issue from all angles, sometimes even out-arguing herself leaving some of us completely bewildered. At the end of such marathon discussion however, we had not only covered all possible grounds but had also done it within the framework, the limitations, the challenges of the letter and the spirit of law. Friends in India would recall Rhonda’s brilliance, relentlessness and passion for justice as she visited Gujarat in 2002 as a panelist of the International Initiative for Justice in Gujarat.
When one describes the life work of someone who has achieved a lot and has made a huge difference in their area of work, one often uses the words ‘selfless and untiring.’ Untiring Rhonda most certainly was – the woman was a ball of energy, the source of which remains unknown. Those who sat with her through any of the long work sessions would know how everybody in the team would end up exhausted, hungry and tired except for Rhonda who would be full of energy, ready to take a stab at the next issue. But selfless she was not – she was selfish, ambitious, personal and passionate about the issues she was involved in. Those who worked with her would second my view if they were part of some of the famous heated discussion that ended up with people walking out. Indeed, I wonder if selflessness in engagement with social issues is not overrated. It has sometimes led to a sense of having sacrificed for ‘others,’ lacking in ownership of the issue and the drive to see things through its logical conclusion. I for one therefore believe that it is Rhonda’s relentless, selfish pursuit of justice, of the goals she believed in; her personal and passionate involvement in the causes she espoused that is responsible for her achievements and the success of many of the initiatives she was associated with.
Knowing and working with Rhonda has been an ongoing and an endless learning experience that I was lucky to have. Being a friend I may have taken her for granted for I do not even know the full extent of her achievements and influence – something I am only beginning to know from all the obituaries that are pouring in. I feel a deep sense of gratitude that she entered my life as a rare gift and influenced it in many unimaginable ways. The precious memories that I cherish of Rhonda would always remain personal – her kindness and generosity, the long walks at the Noyac beach, the drives to her beautiful country home, the numerous memorable dinners that she cooked, the warm welcome by her incredible network of amazing friends, the crazy ‘Rhonda stories,’ the millennium new year’s eve, the 2004 World Social Forum, her stay at my apartment in Bombay, and most of all her belief in me; her personal support, encouragement and nurturing that helped make something out of this rookie from India. The incredible thing is that I am only one of the many women for who she opened her heart and her home. With her immense energy and enthusiasm, she similarly touched and influenced the lives of many women around the world. Finally, I will cherish the rare (coming from her) last two-words in an email I received a week before she passed away – ‘bless you’ and I had not even sneezed. I feel blessed.